By Ann Yingling, AW2 Advocate
I say “process” because it is certainly that. There are applications, interviews, home studies, and “bumps” to attend. (A bump is the process of meeting various dogs to see if any of them bond with the human. And believe me—the dog is the one doing the choosing!) There are trainers to meet, training to attend, and on and on. And it is for good reason that the process is so meticulous—this is serious stuff, not only for the person who receives the dog, but for the dog, too. It’s finding a life partner and making a life-long commitment!
But back to my day… I traveled to Fort Stewart where Paws 4 Vets has a pilot program with the Warrior Transition Battalion there. Both Cadre and Soldiers assigned to the WTB will be training the dogs, which will eventually be assigned to a Soldier or Veteran. Attending that day at Fort Stewart were Terry Henry, Director of Paws 4 Vets, his daughter Kyria who trains the trainers, the Soldiers who will be training the dogs, and Jeff and his parents.
We started out with basic introductions—Jeff and another Veteran (Navy!) who will also be receiving a dog, told the group their “story”. It was very emotional—both heart breaking and heart warming, listening to these two Veterans talk about their service in Iraq, their struggles with PTSD, and the hope for a “normal” life that the dogs have given them. All the while they were speaking, several beautiful golden retrievers and a black lab lay quietly and patiently at their feet. The Soldiers who are training the dogs then spoke about how this program has given them something worthwhile to get excited about—knowing that they will be helping out a fellow wounded warrior. They also told of the benefits received from the dogs in their own healing process.
Then we got to see Sallie, one of the goldens, in action! She showed us just one way that she will be helping a wounded warrior who suffers from agoraphobia (the fear of crowds or open spaces). If Jeff (for example) and Sallie are out in public, and someone is approaching Jeff from behind, Sallie will nudge Jeff in a special way to alert him. If Jeff is not paying attention, Sallie will nudge a second time, a little harder. If the person has approached within an arm’s length of Jeff, Sallie gives a very definitive bark to alert him. Another way a psychiatric service dog has been known to help is that they can “sense” things we humans can’t. For example—for someone who is prone to seizures, flashbacks, or nightmares, the dog might sense the event before it actually happens. Dogs have been known to warn a person of an oncoming seizure—alerting the person so that he can get to a safe place before the onset of the seizure. Dogs can wake a person up before the he becomes too entrenched in a nightmare or flashback. Also, the responsibility of having a service dog is another “hidden” benefit. A dog has to be let out and has to be walked and fed. These responsibilities can help get a person out of the house, give the person a mission or something to focus on.
At Fort Stewart that day, I saw lots of neat “tricks” that a psychiatric service dog can do and I also witnessed the most basic benefit of a service dog: the love and companionship provided. No one loves you as unconditionally as a dog!